The origin of this work is unknown but there are at least 40 surviving manuscript copies, ranging in date from the late 16th to the 18th century, including two copies that belonged to the Elizabethan alchemist Simon Forman (Bodleian Library, Ashmole MSS 1433 and 1490). Many of the surviving manuscripts have an accompanying text, but Forman, for example, noted in one of his copies that he believed the images predated any associated text. The current manuscript's introductory "To the Reader" begins with an apology for his obscurity ("...Not being permitted Most benevolent Reader to write in a clearer Manner than Other Antient Philosophers have done; probably you will not be satisfied with what I have written…") but goes on to insist that observation of nature is the key to understanding alchemical mysteries: “The Most High God … has placed nothing difficult in Nature: if therefore you will imitate Nature, let me persuade You, that you consider it most simply & you will find Every thing Good in it”.
The manuscript was owned in the late-eighteenth century by General Charles Rainsford (see lot ***), who added his own translation of the "To the Reader" (quoted above) on blank pages after the introduction and also added a curious provenance note. As well as noting the immediate source of the manuscript, he notes that it had been known to William Cooper (1639-89), the man responsible for the first book auctions in England and a prominent writer on alchemical subjects. Cooper had been a leading advocate of the prolific alchemical writer (and early Harvard graduate) George Starkey (1628-65), alias Eirenaeus Philalethes, whose work was widely admired by (among others) the early members of the Royal Society, and consequently Rainsford believed this manuscript to be in the hand of Starkey himself. This speculation is incorrect: both paper and hand strongly suggest that this manuscript dates from the first years of the seventeenth century, before Starkey was active.
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